Athos is home to 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople. The Heart and Holy Mount of eastern monasticism.
Historical documents on ancient Mount Athos history are very few. It is certain that monks have been there since the 4th century, and possibly since the 3rd. During Constantine I's reign (324–337) both Christians and pagans were living there. During the reign of Julian the apostate (361–363), the churches of Mount Athos were destroyed, and Christians hid in the woods and inaccessible places. Later, during Theodosius I's reign (383–395), the pagan temples were destroyed. The lexicographer Heysichicus of Alexandria states that in the 5th century there was still a temple and a statue of "Zeus Athonite". After the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, many orthodox monks from the Egyptian desert tried to find another calm place; some of them came to the Athos peninsula. An ancient document states that monks "...built huts of wood with roofs of straw (...) and by collecting fruit from the wild trees were providing themselves improvised meals..."
The chroniclers Theopanes the Confessor (end of 8th century) and Geprgios Kedrenos (11th century) wrote that the 726 eruption of the Thero valcano was visible from Mount Athos, proving that it was inhabited at the time. The historian Genesiso recorded that monks from Athos participated at the 7th Recumenical council of Nicaea of 787. Following the Battle of Theois in 829, Athos was deserted for some time due to the destructive raids of the Cretan Saracians. Around 860, the famous monk Efthymios the Younger came to Athos and a number of monk-huts were created around his habitation, possibly near Krya Near. During the reign of emperor Basil I the Macedonian, the former Archbishop of crete Basil the Confessor built a small monastery at the place of the modern harbour ("arsanas") of Hilandariou Monastery. Soon after this, a document of 883 states that a certain Ioannis Kolovos built a monastery at Megali Vigla.
On a chrysobull of emperor Basil I, dated 885, the Holy Mountain is proclaimed a place of monks, and no laymen or farmers or cattle-breeders are allowed to be settled there. The next year, in an imperial edict of emperor Leo vi the Wise we read about the "...so-called ancient seat of the council of gerondes (council of elders)...", meaning that there was already a kind of monks' administration and that it was already "ancient". In 887, some monks expostulate to the emperor Leo the Wise as the monastery of Kolovos is growing more and more and they lose their peace.
In 908, the existence of a Protos ("First monk") is documented, who is the "head" of the monastic community. In 943, the borders of the monastic state was precisely mapped while we know that Karyes is already the capital town and seat of the administration and has the name "Megali Mesi Lavra" (Big Central Assembly). In 956, a decree offered land of about 940,000 m2 (10,118,075.79 sq ft) to the Xiropotamou monastery, which means that this monastery was already quite big.
In 958, the monk Athanasios the Athonite arrived on Mount Athos. In 962, he built the big central church of the "Protaton" in Karies. In the next year, with the support of his friend, Emperor Nicephorus Phocas, the monastery of Great Lavra was founded, still the largest and most prominent of the 20 monasteries existing today. It enjoyed the protection of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire during the following centuries and its wealth and possessions grew considerably. The 4th Crusade in the 13th century brought new Roman Catholic over-lords which forced the monks to complain and ask for the intervention of Pope Innocent III until the restoration of the Byzantine Empire came. The peninsula was raided by Catalan mercenaries in the 14th century.
Graphic: top left, Xenophontos monastery
bottom right, Stavronikita monastery was the last monastery to be founded